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Gray smoke billows from the distance.

State agency cites Chevron for 4 violations from this week’s flare

on November 29, 2023

A day after flaring at the Chevron refinery belched smoke and gas for nearly 12 hours over Richmond and into Marin County, the Bay Area Air Quality Management District on Tuesday slapped the company with four violations. 

The state agency issued three notices of violations for visible emissions, pertaining to a rule that limits the quantity of particulate matter in the atmosphere, and one for causing a public nuisance. BAAQMD lists the violations as “pending.” 

BAAQMD cited Chevron dozens of times in October, and all of those violations were still listed as pending on Wednesday. In 2020, the refinery paid $147,000 in a settlement with BAAQMD over 27 air quality violations between 2016 and 2018.

“The violations are assessed by our legal team to determine penalties and potential legal action once we have the final investigation report,” said BAAQMD spokesperson Kristina Chu. “This is still an active investigation.”

Richmond has tapped B.K. White, a former Chevron worker and Steelworkers Union president who is now the mayor’s policy director, to work with the Fire Department and regional agencies to assess the city’s safety risks after the flare.

In a statement Wednesday, Mayor Eduardo Martinez said state and federal agencies need to regulate the industry more forcefully.

“These agencies, despite having extensive regulations on paper, often defer to Chevron’s self-reporting and self-regulation in a way that I find irresponsible and worrisome for Richmond’s safety,” he said.  

About 100 complaints about smoke, fire and odors from Monday’s flare were reported to BAAQMD, Chu confirmed. BAAQMD investigators were on site at the refinery until well into Monday evening, according to an agency incident report, which noted that the flaring ended at 2:03 a.m. Tuesday. The report also said Contra Costa County had requested a 72-hour report on the event from Chevron. 

The company released a statement Tuesday night stating, “additional event details are currently being reviewed and will be included in a preliminary incident report submitted to the County by Thursday.”

On Wednesday, Chevron spokesperson Ross Allen told Richmond Confidential that a power outage caused a shutdown of several units. “When that happens, we have to use safety flares to not have a buildup of liquid and gasses,” Allen said. “Our number one priority is the safety of our workers, the environment and the communities.”

Martinez said Chevron owes the public more answers about why the power outage happened and what equipment failed. “The ambiguity surrounding the source of this outage — whether it was internal or from external providers like PG&E — necessitates an in-depth investigation. The lack of clarity on this front is concerning, as understanding the root cause is crucial to prevent future occurrences,” he said.

Monitoring air quality

The flare alarmed many residents, who watched the sky fill with heavy black smoke, which wafted across the San Francisco Bay. 

During the Richmond City Council meeting Tuesday, Councilmember Cesar Zepeda raised concerns with the Nixle emergency notification system, saying he heard from many residents who didn’t receive alerts for nearly two hours after Chevron reported the flare around 3:40 p.m. 

Nixle is a voluntary alert system that requires residents to sign up for emergency texts or emails. Residents eventually were told of a Level 1 incident, which does not require any action from the public.

“Generally a Level 1 incident does not go out to the general public, it’s Level 2 and above,” said interim fire Chief Michael Smith, who provided an updated timeline to City Council on Tuesday. 

Under the Contra Costa County Community Warning System, Level 1 is used for fire or smoke plumes visible offsite, a fire beyond the incipient stage and three or more offsite odor complaints in an hour.    

BAAQMD map showing that from Nov. 1 to Nov. 29, 2023, there were up and down levels of sulfur dioxide in Richmond (designated by blue); Oakland, designated by red; and San Pablo, designated by orange, with peaks in Richmond on Nov. 3, Nov. 12 and Nov. 27, all around 2 ppb.
Bay Area Air Quality Management District map of sulfur dioxide levels.

According to Contra Costa Health, refineries set the initial level classification for an incident. The health department reviews that to determine if it’s appropriate

“In the case of the Chevron flaring Monday, we didn’t elevate it from a Level 1 to a Level 2 since our air monitoring didn’t detect any measurable health concerns,” said Contra Costa Health spokesperson Will Harper.

The Governor’s Office of Emergency Services on Monday said the flare was being monitored for any release of sulfur dioxide, which can irritate eyes and mucous membranes and make breathing difficult for people with respiratory conditions.

BAAQMD’s Air Quality Map showed moderate air quality in Richmond that day and on Wednesday, advising that sensitive people consider limiting prolonged outdoor exertion. The sulfur dioxide level in Richmond spiked on Monday to 2 parts per billion parts of air — about as high as it was on Nov. 11 and Nov. 3, when there was no flaring. That level is far below the 75 ppb established by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and the 140 ppb the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention lists as a dangerous 24-hour average.

The county has asked Chevron to submit a report on Thursday that would include what caused the flare, what notifications were made and what the company did to mitigate the problem. The report will be posted on the Contra Costa Health webpage.

Chevron said on X (formerly Twitter) that as it continues to make operational adjustments, intermittent flaring is still possible. 

California permits flaring by refineries only as an emergency measure. BAAQMD data shows that from 2008 to 2018, Chevron’s annual flaring incidents were in single digits. That changed in 2019, when the number hit 39, and it has been in the double digits since then, with 23 incidents last year. 

Frustrated with frequent flaring incidents at Bay Area refineries, California Assembly Member Buffy Wicks introduced a bill that would triple air pollution fines for refineries and other large manufacturers. In June, the bill passed the House, but it did not make it through the Senate.

(Top photo: Monday’s flare as seen from near Costco, by Ana Tellez-Witrago)

People of Richmond: Should Chevron pay higher fines for flaring?

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